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Faces of COVID-19 victims become memorial to Detroiters lost during the pandemic

It’s been difficult to honor those who have passed due to COVID-19 with social distancing guidelines making memorial gatherings impossible. Rochelle Riley, the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit wanted to change that.

Riley worked with artist Eric Millikin to create a memorial to honor the more than 1,500 Detroiters who have died of COVID -19. There are two parts to the memorial. The first is a drive-through memorial on Belle Isle, with four-foot by four-foot photos of those whose lives were lost due to the virus. Nine hundred families contributed photos of their loved ones. The second part is a collage of the photos that forms a larger image of the Spirit of Detroit Statue. It is featured on the front of the memorial pamphlet that Riley put together, and she said the photos are an important part for her.

“We had the idea to use photos because I know that  so many people not only didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones, but didn’t get to see them sometimes for weeks while they were sick in hospitals or being quarantined and I wanted them to have one last look.”

One such person is Norris Howard, a journalist in Detroit and the nephew of Christine Hanson. She was one of the people remembered at an event on Belle Isle. Howard remembers Hanson fondly, she was the matriarch of her family. She essentially raised Howard’s mother and is remembered as being laid back, but having “a little bit of venom” if you got on her bad side.

She was 89 when she passed away with Howard’s mother at her side. She contracted COVID while  living at a nursing home. The family got to say their goodbyes over video call right before she passed.

Howard says these past few months have deeply changed Detroit as the city grieves for all the lives lost to COVID-19. 

“I feel like it’s changed many inner cities in making us take a serious look at public health and public safety from a certain aspect,” Howard said. “I think the city of Detroit was one of the cities that I kind of anticipated would be hit hard considering the level of poverty unfortunately, but also a city that responded very well to it.”

He says that the response in places outside the city, where the virus may not be taken as seriously is insulting. Rochelle Riley echoed this sentiment. As Detroiters come to Belle Isle to mourn those lost, she said those outside the city are beginning to grasp the severity of the lose.

“I think that people are starting to realize there have got to be ways for us to deal with this than to make it a political battle,” Riley said. “COVID-19 is not a political battle , it’s not a political story. It’s a medical tragedy and we have to start taking it that way."

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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